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Most media outlets seem to operate under the principle that bad news is good news or alternatively, good news is not news. They may be right, in terms of profitability. But they are definitely wrong, in terms of the collective well-being of humanity. This blog is not dependent on readership or advertising revenues, so it can afford to print good news without fear of losing its readership. So here for a start is good news from the energy front.
All of the electricity used by two of the world’s largest corporations, Apple and Google, were from renewable sources by the end of 2017. This is a remarkable achievement, considering that each of these companies uses more electricity than many small nations, not least to power immense data centers scattered around the world. So now, if you have worries about the amount of personal data Facebook & Co. are collecting about you because of their opaque terms of usage, rest assured that they’re not polluting the planet in the bargain.
But seriously, there’s lots of impressive news in the energy area alone. Here’s a chart, courtesy of National Resources Development Center, showing how prices have come down for major clean energy technologies.
Since clean energy is one of the basic requirements for human development, there’s not much stopping world-wide implementation, is there? Capital for investment? It’s increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few–rich corporations and rich individuals. So are we ordinary mortals totally helpless? No, not at all. But we have to make smart choices as customers. We can enrich our lives, and the planet in the process, by getting off the mindless consumption lifestyle that the glossies would have us aspire to.
In one hour, the earth receives more solar energy than the world uses in one year. Now that’s good news and worth repeating, even if its not new. So why are companies producing more dirty diesel cars and building more fossil fuel power plants? Because switching technologies means moving out of comfortable niches of expertise that would otherwise become useless; it would mean new investments, experimenting with new technologies, and why should they take all these risks when customers are flocking to buy new models anyway? As engine size and horse power of new automotive offerings increase, so do their profits, and they see even less reason to invest in new technologies. It’s only we, the customers, who can break this vicious cycle.
English speaking news readers tend to digest information from an overwhelmingly anglocentric or eurocentric point of view. Hence I was not surprised recently to hear a friend accuse the Chinese of polluting the planet when actually, despite (or perhaps because of) a totalitarian regime, they are doing more to clean up the earth than any other nation. For example, the southern Chinese city of Shenzen alone runs a fleet of 16,000 (yes, thousand) electric buses; more than the rest of world combined. So while air quality in Beijing might be abysmal, this past winter, particulate pollution was 50% less than in the previous year. This from no less a source than the US Embassy in Beijing! One reason for the lower levels of pollution might be that China installed more than 53 GW of solar power in 2017.
The above facts don’t make me an apologist for an autocratic government where power is increasingly concentrated at the top. This is undoubtedly a very worrying tendency, one that is being seen in several other large countries like India, Russia, Turkey, China and the United States. In the US case, its robustly democratic political system has been hijacked by corporate lobbies. Nevertheless there is good news coming from each of these countries, and I will try to highlight these bright spots in future posts.
See this author’s page at Amazon.com to read more of his work.
Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance calls you one of three Black Swans in the world of energy and transportation this century; the other two being Fracking and Fukushima. You are often compared to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, the Iron Man, and shades of Einstein. You have advised Presidents. Heads of state visit your factories to see how they could improve the lives of their citizens. You stepped in without fanfare to donate money and provide power to a hospital in Puerto Rico after the devastation of Hurricane Maria. You issue audacious challenges to yourself and to others and sometimes miss deadlines, but ultimately deliver on your promises. Thousands, perhaps millions of people, speculate against you in the stock markets, hoping to make a quick profit from your failure. So far, they’ve been disappointed. But you put your money where your mouth is, so for every one of these speculative sharks, there are a thousand eager customers for your products and millions of well-wishers who hope you can help save the planet.
And yet you feel alone and unloved. You search for a soul mate and are willing to fly to the ends of the earth to find true love. You must know that love is like a butterfly. Be still and perhaps it will land on you. There are no guarantees, but the chances are infinitely greater if you cultivate stillness. And while you wait, exchange your loneliness for the wealth of solitude. As Hannah Arendt and Plato observed: Thinking, existentially speaking, is a solitary but not a lonely business.
As the father of five children, know also that their childhood is a precious and finite resource that you could use to your benefit and theirs. Childhood ends all too soon, so help them in whatever way you can to make good choices. You seem to have done so for yourself. In the meantime, millions of people around the world wish you well, as I do.
Ah, Trump. Has pulled the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter out of the Paris Accord. Was promised. Was to be expected. The one campaign promise that this prevaricating president did keep. The Guardian newspaper has usefully provided an online carbon countdown clock to show the world how time is running out. I believe Trump’s action might provoke the rest of the world to come together to save our common future.
Click on the link above to see how much time we have left.
The political decision to power ahead with Hinkley Point C nuclear power station is the energy equivalent of appointing a tone deaf musical director to the London Symphony Orchestra. How much more evidence do Cameron and Co. need? A short litany of anti-Hinckley arguments should suffice.
In a case of economics speaking truth to power, the OECD’s 2010 World Energy Outlook quietly increased the average lifetime of a nuclear power plant to 45-55 years, up 5 years from its 2008 edition.
Scroll backwards in time to the early 1970s. US President Richard Nixon appointed the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to produce a study of recommendations on “The Nation’s Energy Future” based on advice from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Requesting the AEC for energy prognoses is akin to asking a tiger for dietary recommendations; there will surely be no vegetables on the menu! Dr. Dixy Lee Ray, chair of the AEC, predicted in her summation of the report that “solar would always remain like the flea on the behind of an elephant.” In the early 1980s I knew another eminent researcher, Dr. Thomas Henry Lee, a Vice President for research under Jack Welch at General Electric, who often stated that nuclear power would produce “energy that is too cheap to meter,” essentially free.
The AEC study, when it was published, proposed a $10 billion budget for research and development with half going to nuclear and fusion, while the rest would be spent on coal and oil. A mere $36 million was to be allocated to photovoltaics (PV). Dr. Barry Commoner, an early initiator of the environmental movement, was intrigued that the NSF had recommended such a paltry amount for solar. In the 1950s he had successfully lobbied for citizen access to the classified results of atmospheric nuclear tests and was able to prove that such tests led to radioactive buildup in humans. This led to the introduction of the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963.
Dr. Commoner’s own slogan (the first law of ecology is that everything is related to everything else) prompted him to question the AEC’s paltry allocation for solar PV, especially since he knew some of the members of the NSF panel who advised on the recommendations. He discovered the NSF panel’s findings were printed in a report called “Subpanel IX: Solar and other energy sources.” This report was nowhere to be found among the AEC’s documents until a single faded photocopy was unexpectedly discovered in the reading room of the AEC’s own library. The NSF’s experts had foreseen in 1971 a great future for solar electricity, predicting PV would supply more than 7% of the US electrical generation capacity by the year 2000 and the expenditure for realising the solar option would be 16 times less than the nuclear choice.
Clearly, the prediction of 7% solar electric generation has not yet happened, but current efficiency improvements in photovoltaics and battery storage technologies point the way to an energy future far beyond what the NSF predicted in 1971. Fifty years from now, it is nuclear power that is likely to be the flea on the behind of a solar elephant.
Much of the world’s wars and terrorism occur in the Middle East where, not so coincidentally, much of the world’s oil also originates. A lot of the world’s climate change problem (the majority of the world by now admits that there is a problem) is due to burning fossil fuels. In 2013, oil provided around 33% of global primary energy consumption* (i.e. energy contained in fuels used to generate electricity, heating, industry, transportation or other end users). This amounts to nearly 87 million barrels of oil per day. One third of this oil came from the Middle East.
The World Coal Association states that (in 2013): Coal provides around 30.1% of global primary energy needs, generates over 40% of the world’s electricity and is used in the production of 70% of the world’s steel. Coal is more democratically distributed around the world than oil, and there is not much likelihood of wars being fought over coal reserves. Coal is also a relatively “dirty” fuel and produces more CO2 (ca. 200) per unit of energy delivered than oil (ca. 150) or natural gas (117).
A listing of principal terror groups in the world includes ISIS, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda, Al-Nusra, Ansar al-Sharia, Hezbollah and Hamas. Al-Jazeera news notes that the United Arab Emirates published this week a list of 80 organisations worldwide, including the foregoing, that it formally identified as terrorists. Some of the organisations on that list perhaps do not belong there, but the larger point to be made in this article still holds. When great wealth flows from all parts of the world into the hands of a few, great disparities ensue; injustice and violence occur. The world needs to get off its greed for oil and move to renewable sources of energy. Of course the transition will be painful; but less disruptive than continued terror. Reduced global oil consumption can lessen the flow of disproportionate wealth that the world directs into the coffers of a few by 20 to 30% in the next ten years.
Is the transformation do-able within this time frame? The world’s experts are divided fairly equally between yes and no. Why? Because it hasn’t been done before. But here is an indirect answer. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) has revised its estimates for deployment of renewables worldwide upwards several times in the past decade. The forecasts made in 2002 for the year 2020 were exceeded by the year 2010. So perhaps the correct answer is not to be found among energy experts but in a quote from Spanish poet Antonio Machado (1875 – 1939) who said:
Caminante, no hay camino
Se hace camino al andar.
Traveller, there is no path
The path is made by walking.
Paraphrased less poetically into modern business-speak: walk the walk, don’t simply talk! We have to make choices as individuals before nations and governments follow in our footsteps.
*For more background, see Energy Trends Insider, with links to BP’s widely used Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. Oil accounted for 33 percent of all the energy consumed in the world in 2013. This amounts to 86.8 million barrels per day. Of this, roughly 32% came from the Middle East.
The burning question was asked in May 2013 by Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark and Mill McKibben. The Burning Answer was published a year later, in May 2014 by Keith Barnham, a physicist with practical experience in industry. The topics raised in these two books, the questions posed, and the answers to them will change the world in the coming decades.
The Burning Question: We can’t burn half the world’s oil, coal and gas. So how do we quit?
by Mike Berners-Lee, Duncan Clark and Bill McKibben
The Burning Question reveals climate change to be the most fascinating scientific, political and social puzzle in history. It shows that carbon emissions are still accelerating upwards, following an exponential curve that goes back centuries. One reason is that saving energy is like squeezing a balloon: reductions in one place lead to increases elsewhere. Another reason is that clean energy sources don’t in themselves slow the rate of fossil fuel extraction.Tackling global warming will mean persuading the world to abandon oil, coal and gas reserves worth many trillions of dollars — at least until we have the means to put carbon back in the ground. The burning question is whether that can be done. What mix of politics, psychology, economics and technology might be required? Are the energy companies massively overvalued, and how will carbon-cuts affect the global economy? Will we wake up to the threat in time? And who can do what to make it all happen?
The Burning Answer: A user’s guide to the solar revolution
by Keith Barnham
Our civilisation faces a choice. We could be enjoying a sustainable lifestyle but we have chosen not to. In three generations we have consumed half the oil produced by photosynthesis over eight million generations. In two generations we have used half our uranium resources. With threats from global warming, oil depletion and nuclear disaster, we are running out of options. Solar power, as Keith Barnham explains, is the solution. In THE BURNING ANSWER he uncovers the connections between physics and politics that have resulted in our dependence on a high-carbon lifestyle, which only a solar revolution can now overcome. Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2 led to the atomic bomb and the widespread use of nuclear energy; it has delayed a solar revolution in many countries. In a fascinating tour of recent scientific history, Keith Barnham reveals Einstein’s other, less famous equation, the equation the world could have relied on.
Einstein’s other equation has given us the laptop and mobile phone, and it also provides the basis for solar technology. Some countries have harnessed this for their energy needs, and it is not too late for us to do the same.
In this provocative, inspiring, passionately argued book, Keith Barnham outlines actions that any one and all of us can take to make an impact now and on future generations. THE BURNING ANSWER is a solar manifesto for the new climate-aware generation, and a must-read for climate-change sceptics.
Peter Forbes, writing in the Guardian, has published thoughtful reviews of both these important books.